U.S. Supreme Court Case of Buck v. Bell (1927) - Paper Example

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Wesleyan University
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Buck v. Bell (1927) is the case of Carrie Bucks that first went through the Virginia State Court System, then in the United States Supreme Court where the Court ruled in favor of the enforced sterilization of the unfit population including the intellectually disabled to protect the health of the state.

Eugenics defined

Eugenics refers to the set of norms and practices whose aim is to improve the genetic quality of the human population. Eugenics resulted from a noticeable increase in the crime rates in the United States, specifically in the fast developing US urban areas. Eugenics programs had both positive and negative measures (Lombardo, 2008). The positive actions encouraged individuals fit to reproduce, while the negative rules like marriage prohibitions as well as forced sterilization were in place for people perceived as unfit for reproduction such as those with low IQ, physical/mental disabilities, or criminals, and deviants.

Eugenics and the biological theories of crime

Following the unprecedented immigration late in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the US society experienced and struggled with an increase in crime, suicide, poverty along with other social problems. Some theorists such as those from the Chicago school adopted the sociological explanations as to the causes of crime while others turned to eugenics. Eugenicists claim that any criminal behavior is the result of defective genes and bases their reports on the biological theories of crime (Lombardo, 2008). According to the eugenicists, culture does not make the man, but the man makes the culture, and without denying that the poor social and cultural backgrounds may lead to criminality, the eugenicists were of the view that crime, like the other many social traits, is ultimately biological in origin.

Several studies conducted showed that criminality was on the rise in particular families and groups. Cyril Burt did a pedigree analysis on delinquency in England, and his results supported that traits that run in families are genetic. According to Davenport, criminality stemmed from a general genetic defect, feeble-inhibition, which means that criminals are persons incapable of controlling their impulses and thus acted according to what crossed their minds regardless of the consequences.

Eugenics and enforced sterilization

Buck v. Bell opened the way for other 30 states to implement the sterilization laws (Lombardo, 1996). The result of this was the sterilization of over 60,000 women, men and children in the US without their consent. The US Supreme Court has at no time expressly overturned Buck v. Bell. Despite the efforts to avoid the word eugenics, the efforts to improve the human gene pool persist to eradicate or prevent inheritable defects and diseases.

Current legal status of enforced sterilization in the US

The rates of sterilization under the eugenic laws in the US rose from 1927 until the emergence of Skinner v. Oklahoma in 1942 that did not overturn the Buck v. Bell but created enough legal quandary that discouraged many sterilizations. By 1963, the sterilization laws become almost out of use, although some remained in books for many years. There was the removal of language referring to the eugenics from Virginias sterilization law, and there was the passing on of the current law in 1988 and its amendment in 2013 (Petchesky, 1980). The new law only allows the sterilization of the incompetent patients only if the Virginia court finds clear evidence that the sterilization procedure proves medically important for the patient (Lombardo, 1996).

Hereditary studies and decision making

The study of genetics is not sufficient in making any legal decisions because the social and economic conditions also bring about criminal behavior. Both heredity and environment contribute to the level of crimes, and therefore there is need to examine a case holistically (Lombardo, 1996). The social environment also shapes individuals and the society needs to rehabilitate its people to inculcate acceptable behaviors as stated by Lombroso, a criminal theorist that societies get the criminals they deserve.


Lombardo, P. A. (1996). Medicine, Eugenics, and the Supreme Court: From the coercive sterilization to the reproductive freedom. J. Contemp. Health L. & Pol'y, 13, 1.

Lombardo, P. A. (2008). The Three Generations, no imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell. JHU Press.

Petchesky, R. P. (1980). The Reproductive Freedom: Beyond" A Woman's Right to Choose." Signs: Journal of women in culture and society, 5(4), 661-685.

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